November 28, 2012, 9:38 PM — It was 1958, the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had just launched the first satellite into Earth's orbit, taking the lead in the nascent space race and freaking out U.S. politicians and military leaders.
Surely something had to be done. And some geniuses in the U.S. Air Force thought they had a brilliant plan: Secretly launch a nuclear device into space to be blown up on the moon!
It was called "A Study of Lunar Research Flights," or more cryptically, "Project A-119."
Physicist Leonard Reiffel, the project leader, talked with CNN about the genesis of the plan after the network came across the declassified documents:
"People were worried very much by (first human in space Soviet cosmonaut Yuri) Gagarin and Sputnik and the very great accomplishments of the Soviet Union in those days, and in comparison, the United States was feared to be looking puny."
Puniness is not the American way, mister! What the Air Force thought was needed, Reiffel told CNN, was a "concept to sort of reassure people that the United States could maintain a mutually assured deterrence, and therefore avoid any huge conflagration on the Earth."
And what could be more reassuring than demonstrating that it's possible to launch a nuclear warhead 240,000 miles to the moon, where its detonation would make for a spectacular and sobering display for slack-jawed viewers watching from, I don't know, the Kremlin or someplace like that.
Or maybe not.
Contrary to some reports, Reiffel told CNN, the device would not have "blown up" the moon. "Absolutely not. It would have been microscopic, so to speak. It would have been, I think, essentially invisible from the Earth, even with a good telescope."
So much for shock and awe.
Interestingly, one of Reiffel's team members was a young graduate student named Carl Sagan, who went on to become one of the world's few celebrity astronomers.
Fortunately, by 1959 saner heads in the Air Force prevailed as serious questions were raised concerning radioactivity, the reliability of the nukes and public backlash in the U.S. Project A-119 was quietly forgotten in Pentagon files, as were even crazier ideas such as building nuclear launch sites on the moon from which to attack the Soviet Union.
"These are horrendous concepts," Reiffel, now 85 years old and living in Chicago, told CNN. "And they are hopefully going to remain in the realm of science fiction for the rest of eternity."